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My love affair with the Sinclair ZX81 or why I’m an IT lawyer…

Nov 11, 2013

I’ve been an I.T. lawyer ever since I qualified as a solicitor, some 16 years ago. Nowadays it’s a recognised industry to practice law in; however when I first started out, jumping ship from the large city law firm where I trained as a solicitor, it was practically unheard of for lawyers to specialise in I.T.

So what led me to turn down the well paid job as a corporate finance lawyer at one of the world’s most prestigious law firms and forge a legal career in the technology industry?

On Christmas Day 1981, my younger brother and I weren’t very happy to be told that we had to share our main Christmas present.  Sharing wasn’t something we were very good at.  Unwrapping the present, which Dad had bought in a branch of WHSmith’s on a trip to London, we were confused and not exactly thrilled.  It was a slim black box with white keys and it didn’t appear to do anything.

However, by the time the turkey was cooked that Christmas, my love affair with the Sinclair ZX81 had begun.   Even all these years later the recollection of the sound of games loading from the tape recorder, that migraine-inducing high-pitched electric whine bouncing up and down, gives me a shiver of pleasure.

Robin Clarke writing in the New Scientist in 1982 said that there were only “a few remarkably poor programs on cassette” (Microcomputers: No room at the inn”. New Scientist. p. 390), however Robin Clarke wasn’t an 11 year old from Portsmouth. The ZX81 was like nothing I’d ever seen before. My brother and I spent hours, days, months playing Asteroids by QuickSilva.  Never have we shared so well. I was totally and utterly head over heels with the ZX81.

Once we’d persuaded our parents to buy the 16 kB RAM pack (spectacularly poorly designed to be top heavy and wobble out of the connector at the back – always at crucial moments) my emphasis changed, from playing games to trying to teach myself to write them.  Using “BASIC Computer Games” by David H Ahl as my bible, I first learned to type in the code and then execute it (I’m not sure anything has ever been as satisfying since) wiling away entire school holidays trying to work out where I’d transposed two instructions that was causing the whole thing to fail.  I moved on to writing my own programs. I taught myself the rudiments of machine code.  It never lost its hold over me.  It seemed fantastical that the little black box on the kitchen table could understand that a random string of letters and numbers was a set of specific instructions.  I still have a strong fascination with language and I think that that too stems from when I was 11 years old and used a language to make an inanimate black box do what I wanted it to do.

Two years later the newer, sleeker, more colourful ZX Spectrum arrived in our house, but the reason I’m an IT lawyer, the reason I love working for IT companies, is entirely due to my love affair with Sinclair ZX81 that started on Christmas Day 1981…